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Futuristic Musclemen

Jean Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren flex it in Carolco's UNIVERSAL SOLDIER.

By Steve Biodrowski, Cinefantastique, vol. 23 #1, August 1992

UNIVERSAL SOLDIER is the first of a multi-picture deal between Belgian kickboxer Jean Claude Van Damme and Sony Pictures Entertainment, which will either produce the films through Columbia or, as in this case, distribute them through TriStar after they have been produced by Carolco. At $23 million, the film represents Van Damme's graduation to big-budget action-adventure after a successful series of low- to mid-budget martial arts pictures, including the science-fiction effort CYBORG.
Along for extra name value is Dolph Lundgren, another mid-level action star, with two previous genre credits: MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE and I COME IN PEACE. The casting is symptomatic of the currently profitable fusion of science fiction and action-adventure; no doubt Carolco and TriStar are hoping the project will launch its two co-stars into the box office orbit reached by Arnold Schwarzenegger in TOTAL RECALL and TERMINATOR 2. TriStar opens the film nationwide July 17.
Produced by Craig Baumgarten, UNIVERSAL SOLDIER was originally to be directed and co-written by action-thriller specialist Andrew Davis, who put Steven Seagal on the map with ABOVE THE LAW. However, after months of development, pre-production, and location scouting in Mexico, Mario Kassar replaced Davis in February 1991. Apparently, the Carolco executive was concerned about the budget, which at that time included extensive computer-generated opticals. Only the presence of the two leads kept the project alive, and German director Roland Emmerich (MOON 44), whose experience overseas had taught him to do science fiction on a shoestring, was allowed to develop a new script with the old title.
"The hook for me was it was a kind of double-monster situation, where one is good and one is bad," said Emmerich. "Also, I felt it was an action film with a message. I think too many action movies don't have any kind of message or theme you can relate to. It was not really clearly there in the original script, but I immediately saw that it could be a terrific story about someone who wants to become human again. These guys never got out of war. They died in war and were revived as these robot-things. What Luc [Van Damme] wants to do from the very beginning is go home-like every soldier. Scott [Lundgren] was exactly the opposite. He was going nuts in war, and when he wakes up again, he wants to stay at war-it's the only thing he knows."
After coming on board in March, Emmerich spent the next five months developing his version of the story with screenwriter Dean Devlin. In the new screenplay, Luc and Scott, after killing each other in Vietnam, are revived two decades later as part of a top-secret antiterrorist program. Although the Universal Soldiers were originally conceived as glowing biomechanical cyborgs (hence, the computer opticals to provide interactive lighting), the explanation for their strengths and recuperative powers has been simplified to a "hyper-accelerating" metabolism, which results in prohibitively high body temperature. The Uni-Sols' memories are supposedly wiped after each mission, but things go awry when a pesky female reporter and eventual love interest stumbles upon the program.
When satisfied with the new script, Emmerich took the production to Arizona for ten weeks of location shooting, which started last August. "I didn't want a town or city area, because I had seen it so often," said Emmerich. "We were looking for a gigantic building for terrorists to take over. As a German, the most impressive place I know of in America is Hoover Dam. Everybody said, 'You're nuts-they'll never allow it.' But they allowed it we got permission."
Emmerich found no particular problems working on location in the middle of the desert, though he claimed the producers were at a loss without working cellular phones in their automobiles. Emmerich noted that he got on "surprisingly well" with Van Damme and Lundgren. "I was a little nervous," he said. "You always read and hear about all kinds of problems working with stars, but they accepted me from the first day of shooting and did what I told them. I think people will be very surprised to see both of them in this movie. It's not a typical movie for them."
Although the emphasis on action might not seem like much of a change of pace for either actor, Emmerich noted that UNIVERSAL SOLDIER abandons the standard martial arts formula. "It's not a typical karate-revenge picture," he said. "There's not much fighting, because these guys are the ultimate soldiers-an ordinary human being couldn't fight them." Only at the very end is there a hand-to hand confrontation between Van Damme and Lundgren, during which both actors get to show off their physical prowess, including Van Damme's patented 360-degree spinning head kick. "We went for a different approach there. We didn't say, 'We need a ten-minute fight.' It has some twists and turns; it's very uneven, because only Dolph's character stays strong, while Jean-Claude is a declining, dying man."
After finishing in Arizona, the production moved back to Los Angeles to shoot interior scenes of the Uni-Sol command truck, where the Universal Soldiers are cooled off and placed in suspended animation after each mission. These scenes include many of the film's gruesome makeup effects, courtesy of Michael Burnett Productions (DOLLY DEAREST). "Basically, the idea here was to make very realistic stuff-not fancy, not science fiction," explained Emmerich. "In the beginning, the film was on the fantasy side. I tried to tone it down. It has a science fiction element, but it's realistic."
Burnett and his new partner Larry Hamlin were among the few survivors from the earlier version of the project. "It became a makeup effect movie as opposed to puppet or mechanical effects," noted Burnett of the changeover. "Originally, the characters were like bionic men. We built an articulated dummy of Dolph for close-ups when you'd see biomechanics working under the skin. We would have been developing a lot of new things. Puppets are one of the hardest things to do convincingly."
"In the old version," added Hamlin, "Andy Davi wanted full-body nude dummies just so the actors wouldn't have to be suspended in water tanks. Once they got the bill, they decided the actors were making enough money to get wet."
The molds of Lundgren were salvaged to make a dummy for the character's demise. Other effects include a torso for an open-chest operation on one of the UniSols, a leg for a scene wherein the reporter (Ally Walker) cuts a tracking device out of Luc, and numerous gunshot wounds, especially in the Vietnam prologue. "There are some really gruesome appliance wounds," said Burnett. "We tried to go for a gritty, realistic look, like you'd see in PLATOON. Even the operation sequence isn't over the top-it's disturbing, but you don't see a lot of blood.
"We did a bunch of head hits," Burnett continued. "Roland tried to tie things into the Vietnam sequence, with similar incidents triggering the character's memory. We worked with Kit West's people-he's a special effects guy from England-because you have to be licensed for pyro and we're not. We made an appliance for the front and an appliance for the back that could go under a wig, and a blood bag. It's very subtle but very disturbing. We didn't want DAWN OF THE DEAD heads exploding. The character looked totally normal you wouldn't know he had an appliance on. They'd pop this thing off, and the back of his head would open."
After finishing the makeup effects, the film moved into the editing phase for the remaining months of 1991, then wrapped post-production early this year, including a score by Chris Frank (formerly of Tangerine Dream). Director Emmerich is pleased with what he managed to accomplish on his first big-budget American production. "We have a huge, very different kind of car chase." he said. "I think you couldn't do something like that in Germany. Also, the coordination of special effects is a slower process there. It's amazing how they do it here. In Germany, you have the director totally involved in that; here, you tell them what you want, and like a miracle, it happens."
Despite Emmerich's previous genre credits- THE NOAH'S ARK PRINCIPLE (1984), MAKING CONTACT (1985) and GHOST CHASE (1980)- the director doesn't want to make science fiction exclusively. "My very first film was science fiction," he explained. "They put me in a drawer, and it was easier for me to get this kind of movie made than another. Right now, I'm looking for other stuff, because it's getting repetitive. On the other hand, I have a big science-fiction project I would like to do. It's not easy now to get films of that size made, because everybody is scared. On the other hand, I don't think money alone solves the problems of a big movie. It's more how inventive you are. I still think it's possible to do big movies for $20-30 million, if you do them a different way. When you have a lot of time, it costs less-you can plan it with fewer people, and everything's more in control."

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